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Humanitarian action


International humanitarian law and ethics are not the only domains to be influenced or challenged by the use of new technologies. The latter have also recently penetrated the world of humanitarian action, and have brought with them substantial changes in the way humanitarian actors perform their work.

The introduction of new technologies in humanitarian action indeed presents opportunities to improve an array of functions and services, such as information gathering, analysis, coordination, training, communication, needs assessment or fundraising. In some instances, new technologies have made it possible for affected communities to become active participants in humanitarian action and delivery, rather than bystanders. They also make it possible to film and record military operations and to reveal possible war crimes. For example, the use of satellite imagery has already facilitated investigations into possible violations of the law in the Gaza Strip, Georgia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. In addition, the use of new communication and geolocation technologies can make it easier to identify needs, restore family links after a crisis, and track population displacements in remote corners of the world.

However, as new applications of technologies become more prevalent among humanitarians, the risks, limitations and failures of technology become more apparent. The advantages of using new technologies also need to be carefully balanced with the prerogatives of principled humanitarian action. Several organizations have in the past years introduced new technologies to improve their humanitarian work, whether in the realms of assistance (e.g. mobile cash transfers, GIS mapping), protection (e.g. collecting information on affected populations and on violations), and communication (e.g. social media). Although such introduction of new technologies stems from a commitment to improve the quality and the extent of humanitarian activities, actors in this field need to be aware of, understand, and prevent, the potential negative impacts. In particular, one of the challenges lies in ensuring the continued respect for the principles that govern humanitarian action. In particular, and this question is at the core of the ICRC’s reflection, it is important to select those technologies and use them in a way that will enhance the impartiality of humanitarian action, improve efficiency in the field and the quality of aid, broaden the number of beneficiaries, etc. without harming the ethical framework of humanitarian work.